Safe Spaces and Why You Already Believe in Them

Rachel Gallagher '19
Guest Columnist


 I am writing this article in response to, but not debating, all the points made by the article “Don’t Give Me Shelter” by Betsy Hedges. 

I think a lot of people have some misconceptions about safe spaces, what they are, where they came from, and how long they’ve been around. To many people, they are a product of the millennial generation, associated with stereotypes regarding hurt feelings, political correctness, extreme feminism and the modern day “social justice warriors.”

    What is a safe space? To me, the first thing that comes to mind is not the cordoned off rooms the Law School provided in the wake of the presidential election, but perhaps one of the earliest so-called “safe spaces:” Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is the quintessential example of a safe space: a place where members can gather and share feelings or experiences without being criticized, judged, or told that the entirety of their problems lay at their feet; they may also share experiences and thoughts that will not follow them into their daily life. And while I’m painting with a rather broad brush here, I think we can agree that a safe space is a meeting place where people share their feelings and issues dealing with experiences the majority of us might never encountered—including substance abuse, PTSD, eating disorders, the aftermath of rape, or, dare I say it, experiences with racism and unfounded hatred.

As Ms. Hedges hits on, safe spaces do serve a need in the community – the need to discuss real and valid feelings and concerns without fear of them being dismissed, ignored, or held against that person’s character in their daily life. Where we disagree is whether or not it is appropriate for the Law School to provide a room for such a space. Is there really any harm in allowing temporary and limited spaces for people to discuss their concerns and fears following a long year of inflammatory and fear-inspiring rhetoric, even if there have not been any threats of violence on grounds? Especially if the man who has been elected president was endorsed by the KKK, has a history of decrying entire races and religions, and has advocated for war crimes and still had the approval of a large swath of the population? I have no problem with allowing a safe space in this situation, just as I would have no problem with the school letting a room to other group therapy or community healing events.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the entirety of the Law School, or of any school, to transform into a 24/7 expansive safe space where only like-minded people can yell into a liberal echo-chamber and disagreements are not allowed—merely for the allowance for temporally and spatially limited spaces for people to discuss concerns without fear of dismissal or misunderstandings. 

The founder of AA was a former student at my undergraduate university, Norwich University, which is a private military college in the state of Vermont. My second year, I lived in the dorm that bears his name. Today, my alma mater is filled with hopeful military officers who look upon safe spaces and the like in a derogatory and dismissive manner, even as I know several alums who partake in AA for their own problems. I would ask them the same I ask of you: if you are okay with safe spaces for some groups but not for all groups, take a moment of introspection and ask yourself why you believe that some people deserve to have their issues and experiences validated while many others just need to “act like grown-ups.”